Election night in 2010 was full of surprises. The defeat itself was not one of them; the steady loss of Labour support since the fateful ‘election that never was’ in 2007 became a torrent by 2009 from which it was hard to imagine a recovery.
Surprises though there were. Oxford East, Birmingham Edgbaston, Westminster North were the more pleasant ones; Cannock Chase and Redcar loom high in my mind as those at the other end of the spectrum.
Regional offices had pushed the rising tide back … but not that far. On the doorstep we knew that the electorate thought we were out of touch. Swathes of voters were just angry. Angry and in many places, skint. Unemployment was up and inflation had risen sharply again at the beginning of the year. Oh and we were presiding over a system where it was ok for MPs to decorate their homes at tax payers’ expense.
The rage was particularly strong from traditional Labour voters. Whilst a number of voters who left Labour in 2005 over Iraq were coming back, we were taking a kicking from the ‘DE’ social group, and demographic analysis after the election proved it. As discussed elsewhere in this magazine, in 1997 we had 59 per cent of this group. In 2010 we held just 40 per cent and fewer of them actually voted. Winning back support in this group is vital to our chances of success in 2015.
Their propensity to vote may not be as high as the more affluent, but there are a lot more of them. The only way we are going to do that is to get out there and talk with them. But not just talk to the DEs; talk to all groups of voter. As a political movement we have to understand better that not everyone has the same experiences, the same aspirations or the same values. People are different and people are voters. Whilst some of their opinions might differ from the majority of Labour party members, their views can have political validity and, in a democracy, their concerns need to be listened to even if we chose not to address them.
The danger is when we forego the conversation and so misunderstand the problem, as we did with immigration in the early part of the 2005 to 2010 term. European enlargement may seem like a great idea to the MD looking to expand his company’s export market into Eastern Europe but it can look pretty terrifying to the sole trader in a big city suburb trying to pay his mortgage and help a child through university.
Of course, this re-engagement can only work if it’s done at the highest levels. As a movement we should do it because we want to represent the people and communities in which we live, but the policy decisions are taken by our leaders. So it’s them and their advisers who need regular facetime (or phonetime) with voters. Only then will we be able to reconnect at the level we need to.
The good news is, of course, that talking to voters is also a great organisational tool for winning elections. Research suggests that differential turnout happens when voters are contacted on polling day or just before to remind them to vote. So on a national level we need to prioritise building an organisational structure which recruits and trains volunteers to get out there and talk to people; that knows what to do with the information gained; and then deploys it meaningfully on polling day.
People are key. The right people, with the right information, with the right resources can win elections in the field.
And to do that we need to allow our organisers to actually organise. All too often, Labour party organisers are drafted in to help with key campaigner visits, audience-building or to deal with legal wrangles. They barely have time to design a comprehensive activist recruitment and training programme, let alone implement it. In any case, these types of activity need continuity over time. Organisers dragged off to a byelection at a moment’s notice can hardly provide that either.
But without this change then the party cannot change. Labour party members and supporters are volunteers. Willing volunteers in the main, but the numbers of them who have the evidence-based knowledge and the skills to help them run a tight campaign in a marginal constituency are few and far between. A national call centre or mailing house cannot reconnect with our lost voters and win the next election. But trained volunteers can.